Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Kumari and SD Shibulal: Nurturing the transformative power of education

With a firm belief in the transformative power of education, Kumari and SD Shibulal started their philanthropic journey 25 years ago, growing the reach of their programmes and nurturing their success

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Feb 6, 2024 12:45:32 PM IST
Updated: Feb 6, 2024 12:56:05 PM IST

Kumari and SD Shibulal: Nurturing the transformative power of education(From left) Kumari Shibulal and SD Shibulal set up the Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives (SFPI) in 1998 Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

Both of us come from middle-class families. I come from a lower middle-class family, and when I was growing up, education was not that important for parents. They wouldn’t encourage it much because livelihoods got in the way,” recalls Kumari Shibulal, who was born to farmer parents in Ramamangalam, a small village in Kerala. “I remember when I was going to school, during harvest time, half the children would be absent from classes.” Her own parents, however, although uneducated, were very progressive. “They figured out that only through education we can make any improvement in our lives or in future generations. So, they forced us to go to school and study. That is the reason we are here now, talking to you.”

Having experienced the paradigmatic shifts that education brought to their own lives, both SD Shibulal, co-founder and former CEO of Infosys, and his wife Kumari have been ardent believers in its transformative powers. It is, therefore, not entirely surprising that they decided to start and sustain their philanthropic journey in the field of education, expanding its scope and scale over the past 25 years.

The couple set up the Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives (SFPI) in 1998, by sponsoring the education of two children from Shibulal’s school, TD High School, in his hometown, Alappuzha in Kerala, and, over the years, have established several programmes that support the education of thousands of underprivileged children from multiple states, taking them through school and higher education. In more recent years, they have established a skilling programme for youngsters who want to have a career in the hospitality sector, as well as a programme to encourage and support classical music, folk art and dance forms.

Starting with its first educational programme in 1999, the SFPI today supports multiple programmes that provides scholarships (Vidyadhan) and residential schooling facilities (Ankur) for children from underprivileged backgrounds, inclusive schools (The Samhita Academy), educational leadership development platforms (Shikshalokam), educational ecosystem building platforms (Edumentum), skilling programmes for the youth (Saathiya), and sponsoring classical Indian and folk art music and dance forms (Sangamam) through concerts and scholarships (see box).

The EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy list 2023 says Shibulal donated ₹35 crore towards philanthropy and ranked 29th on the list. According to Forbes, he oversees his family office, Innovations Investment Management, and continues to hold a small stake in Infosys. He co-founded business incubator Axilor Ventures together with former Infosys colleague Senapathy Gopalakrishnan in 2014, and chairs The Tamara, a boutique resort chain, which his daughter Shruti founded and runs. Kumari is the founder and chairperson at SFPI, and the founder-patron of the Sarojini Damodaran Foundation (set up in 1999) and The Advaith Foundation (set up in 2004).

“Today, the only transformative power is education,” says Shibulal. “It creates upward mobility. It creates social status. It creates role models. We have children in our Vidyadhan group, some of whom are from villages and who are now heroes in their villages.” Kumari says some of these villagers had not even heard of girls going to school and finishing their education. “When I talk to these children, they say that whenever they go home, the villagers who have children in school come to ask for their advice; what to do, what to study and all that. They are really heroes.” “Especially the girls,” adds Shibulal. “Because girls have become the breadwinners, and their families have come out of poverty. So, it is a noble thing really.”

He adds that even in SFPI’s most recent initiative, Sangamam, which aims to promote Indian classical and folk music and dance forms, there is an element of education. The programme provides scholarships to young students who wish to train in the performing arts but are unable to do so because of financial constraints.

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Shibulal elaborates that there are three aspects of education that define their philanthropic work. One is accessibility, which is a big challenge, whether it is in the K-12 category of education or in higher education. Providing access to quality education for 300 million school-going children in this country is the primary challenge that he sees. This, he adds, requires collaboration between the three verticals that they have termed ‘samaj’ (society), ‘sarkar’ (government) and ‘bazar’ (market).

The second challenge is that of affordability—making higher education affordable for the underprivileged—while the third is about awareness. Shibulal feels that in rural parts of India, there continues to be a lack of awareness about the value of higher education. “The fact that it can transform your lives, the fact that it can create a change in the way you live, the fact that it can create social upward mobility, the fact that it can take you out of poverty is not well understood,” he stresses. “So, our work is purely in the affordability and awareness space,” he says. “For higher education, we create affordability by giving scholarships and awareness through building role models.”

But regardless of the field of work, Shibulal feels that the act of philanthropy—in its formal and organised form—has its own set of challenges, whether it is individual philanthropy or corporate. The primary one, he thinks, is that of alignment. “There has to be a clear alignment of objectives on both sides, which is required for philanthropy to work. Because there are a bunch of corporates or family foundations that are spending time, effort and money on these matters, and there is a large social sector that is taking it forward; it’s a collaboration between these two. So, creating an alignment, sometimes I find, is challenging for both parties.”

Then there are the issues of “line-of-sight impact” and patience, especially with programmes that deal with the education of children. “There are children who we took in 2004, and they just graduated last year and got a job; we had to wait all these years to get the result,” says Kumari. “So, patience sometimes I find is a challenge for both parties,” Shibulal explains.

Kumari and SD Shibulal: Nurturing the transformative power of education

Kumari adds a different perspective to the challenges of philanthropy: The very difficult process of refusing deserving children. “Another challenge is that the need is a lot, and in a lot of ways. So, saying no to any of these children is really, really heartbreaking actually. When I do the selection, I see that we get about 50,000 applications for the Vidyadhan students, from which we can take 2,500 students. But mostly, from among those 50,000, about 25,000 are equally deserving. But saying no to those children is very difficult.”

This is the reason why Shibulal feels that no matter how much the contribution, there will always be a limit to the reach that one organisation or one set of people can achieve. “One of the reasons why we build partnerships through the ‘Each One, Teach One’ concept is to increase the number. That’s why partnerships are extremely important,” he adds. “For instance, our partnership with Vidyadhan has allowed us to scale further.”

Having started their philanthropic journey more than two decades ago and achieving scale and success over the years—much like incubating a young startup and building it up into a global powerhouse that is Infosys—there are significant lessons that Kumari and Shibulal have gathered over the years.

“If you look at our journey, we started small. And that is a learning in itself; that it is better to start small and run pilots before you start scaling,” says Shibulal, referring to how the couple had started their philanthropic efforts by sponsoring the education of just two children. The second lesson, he continues, is that they started young. “Actually, Kumari always says that one should start young. So, we started pretty young; we started 25 years ago. We, in a sense, did not wait for our entire traditional life to be over before we started.”

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That they started with only two children and, at present, support the education of thousands is evidence of the fact that the programmes have successfully scaled up over the years. “It is important to build scale, because in a country like India, where the issues are much more powerful, there is a lot of uncertainty. But building scale and reach is not possible without strong partnerships.”

This ability to reach this scale Shibulal attributes to building strong partnerships with many organisations across the country, including corporates, individuals, and other organisations. The other element that has been critical in building scale is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of technology.

“And then we believed in long-term impact. So, if you look at many of our programmes, they take seven to 15 years to bear fruit: It takes seven years to get a child through higher education; it takes 15 years to get an ultra-poor child through the education system. We believed in long-term impact.”

With 25 years behind them in the field of education, Kumari and SD Shibulal do not feel the need to expand their philanthropic efforts in other sectors. “I think we have reached a stage where focus is very, very important. We have chosen education as the primary area of work for us. We operate in higher education, in K-12 education, in cultural education, in skilling… So, we are fully engaged in this space,” explains Shibulal. “Our objective would be to scale our programmes.”

Kumari and SD Shibulal: Nurturing the transformative power of education

He gives the instance of their Vidyadhan programme, which was started with a pilot and eventually converted into a platform where not only SFPI is operating, but also its partners. Shikshalokam too is now a platform. “So, our approach is we start small, we convert it into a programme which we run for a while, for many years, and then we convert that into a platform where we can unite partners. In this way, we can make it sustainable. So, given where we are, I think our focus would be to remain focussed on what we do.”

Although Kumari and Shibulal have taken a structured approach towards their philanthropic work, Shibulal believes that culturally India has always been a philanthropic society, and that the current form of philanthropy is what is new. “When I go to my village, I see that people do cooperate, people are kind to each other, people do come to help others, people do collaborate during difficult times or good times. So, informal philanthropy has always existed here. That is my belief. That’s how I see the world.” Formal philanthropy is, however, evolving fast, he adds. “Formal philanthropy requires certain conditions that are now being met, either through CSR or through family foundations. CSR allows the population to participate in the philanthropic world, and family foundations are being set up more and more. And you [the media] are celebrating some of the people in this space, and actually creating new role models and creating awareness about how things can be done.”

Despite the scale and success of SFPI’s philanthropic initiatives, Kumari feels that philanthropy is hardly just about giving money. “Money, you know, is not the only philanthropic instrument. Actually, when I talk to these children, they will say, ‘Ma’am, I want to be like you’. So, I always tell them, you don’t have to make a lot of money and get old to do philanthropy. You can do it now itself by reading a newspaper to old people, or walking somebody who cannot walk, or giving some attention to or clearing the doubts in your village, or teaching your neighbour’s child. Giving your time is philanthropy; you don’t have to have too much money to do philanthropy.”

(This story appears in the 09 February, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)